the Luke Gospel and the Matthew Gospel tell two stories that aren’t the same.
my sister and i went to the same high school – Go Mustangs! – but i was two years ahead of her. we had many of the same friends, the same classes, the same teachers. but we also had separate experiences – she’s female, i’m male; i’m older, she’s younger; we had different interests, different friends – and so we tell stories about the same high school in the same historical era in different ways.
the early Jesus people were no different; many folks had had a shared experience, but none of them had the identical experience. and then they scattered and repeated their many versions of that experience, and along the way, they created written versions of their experiences. we have a few of those (not in their original forms, but, y’know, things tend to change after a few thousand years), and in two of them, there are stories about the birth of Jesus.
one story, Luke, is about two women who have miraculous pregnancies, one old (Elizabeth the Priestess), one young (Mary the Nobody), about the husbands who support their wives, about Mary’s baby being honored by an army of angels saying he will be King of Israel, and a group of shepherds who tell Mary and her husband what the angels said.
Luke’s story, like any story, has themes; most importantly, it says that the poor or ignored (the childless Elizabeth, Mary, Joseph, shepherds) are being given honor and power by God.
the other story, Matthew, is about a man, Joseph, who is a descendent of the legendary king David; Joseph is told that his wife-to-be is pregnant with a miracle baby. he is forced by the Empire to go to his family’s ancestral home, which just happens to be the hometown of King David, and his now-wife has the baby, whom Joseph names “God-Will-Save,” the name of Joshua, the legendary champion general of the Israelite invasion and occupation of Canaan. a few years later some astrologers from Syria? Persia? Babylon? come to Israel to visit a new king, and the present Mad King Herod tries to kill the new king. Joseph and his family escape.
Matthew’s story, like any story, has themes; most importantly, it says that the message of the baby (who grows up to be the hero of the story, Jesus) is opposed to the messages of the powers of the earth – Empires, Kings – and though the Empire will kill God’s prophets, Jesus included, God values spiritual rather than earthly powers.
they’re not the same story. there are overlaps, some of the same characters, but the timelines aren’t the same, and the themes aren’t the same.
is it that big a deal? maybe not. except that when we smush (“harmonize”) the two narratives together, the amalgam loses the flavor and the major points of each one on its own. maybe it’s like a stew made from different things, and stew is usually good, at least in the hands of a good cook.
but i like reading each of the gospels on its own, because each has its own themes and purpose. all of them mixed together make a stew, too, but i prefer one at a time – sort of like i prefer to eat pancakes and eggs and bacon at one meal, and salad at a different meal, and multi-grain crackers and hummus at yet another meal, and pad thai at a different meal. mixing the gospels together for me is like putting those four meals all in a blender.